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Saturday, 19 May 2012

For most Americans, the word supercalifragilisticexpialidocious is insuperably linked to the 1964 movie adaptation of Mary Poppins and its score, written by the Sherman brothers.

Ben Zimmer at the Visual Thesaurus, with the help of Merriam-Webster, recently shared a much earlier printed use of the term “Supercaliflawjalisticexpialadoshus.” As shown above, it appeared in Syracuse University’s Daily Orange newspaper in 1931. Humor columnist Helen Herman claimed to have concocted the word several years before, “or at least, I have my own interpretation of its pronunciation.”

The Shermans themselves never claimed to have invented the word. Instead, they recalled hearing it at a summer camp in the 1920s. There’s no obvious connection between them and Helen Herman, though it’s hard to imagine the word would have developed independently.

In 1949 and 1951, songwriters Gloria Parker and Barney Young published a song with the spelling “Supercalafajalistickespialadojus.” After Mary Poppins, they sued the Sherman brothers for copyright infringement. The judge ruled that the songs were different enough. But weren’t the titles basically the same? Yes, but titles can’t be copyrighted.

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